Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews

Author: Dr.hist. Leo Dribin
Jews from two ethnographic regions in Latvia - Kurzeme and Zemgale until the foundation of independent Latvia (18 November 1918) were called Kurzeme's Jews (Kurländische Juden, Kурляндские евреи). Both regions were parts of Kurzeme/ Kurland Duchy (1561 - 1795), which was a Polish tributary state managed by German nobility, and which after its joining to Russian Empire were changed into its Kurzeme province. The capital of the Duchy - Jelgava (Mitau, Митава) became the administrative center of this province.

Many Jewish families traveled to Kurzeme from North Germany and Brandenburgh - the Prussia, in hope for better life. The first colony of them settled in Piltene district in 1571. Later came settlements in Aizpute, Kuldīga, in the center of the Duchy - Jelgava, Jēkabpils, Bauska and other places. It was the beginning of history of Jews in Latvia. Jews coming from Germany gradually formed Kurzeme's Jews regional group, which was connected with Jewry in German countries, they spoke German Yiddish and German languages.

Jewish entrepreneurs, revenue officers and tax collectors helped the Kurzeme's dukes to modernize their country by adopting it to the countries of middle Europe of those times. During the Northern War (1700 - 1721) majority of Kurzeme's Jews were killed or fled to other places. They were replaced by a new wave of German Jews in the 18th century. They came mainly from the Kingdom of Prussia. Number of Jews in Kurzeme and Zemgale was tripled and reached 9 thousand at the end of the century. The newcomers were mainly traders and craftsmen. Around 200 Jews had finished German higher educational institutions, they were doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, teachers - they formed a Jewish wing in the local German intelligentsia. These Jews had joined emancipation that started in Germany, they helped to bring to Latvia the spirit of enlightenment. One of counselors of Duchess Anna loanovna and Duke Ernest Biron was a Jew Levi (Louis) Lipman. He was their person of trust also when Anna became the Empress of Russia (1730 - 1740). It was Lipman who raised the money for the constructions of the magnificent palaces of Jelgava and Rundale. In general, the Jews did play a significant role in making Kurzeme more European.

Under Russia Jews' life became harder but not as hard as in other provinces of the Empire - Russian administration respected those who spoke German. Therefore many Jews from Lithuania and Belorussia traveled to Kurzeme in the 19th century. In the middle of the 19th century there were 23 thousand, in 1881 - 47 671 but in 1897 - 51 169 (almost 9% of the inhabitants of the province) Jews living in the province permanently. Two thirds of Jews lived in towns: in Jelgava - 16,7%, in Liepāja - 14,7%, in Aizpute, Jēkabpils and Tukums - 40-50%, but in Bauska and Jaunjelgava - they were more than half of the inhabitants of the towns. No wonder that the last were called Jewish towns at that time.

Jews played a very great role in the economic life of the province, they dominated trade, especially in big guilds and associations, and they were also determining goods' flow from Kurzeme to Poland, Lithuania, Germany and back. Most noticeable it was in the trade with corn, linen and timber. Famous were Jewish tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, glasscutters, they had a monopoly as jewelers. Jews number was not that high among entrepreneurs, they were discriminated and only few managed to pass administrative restrictions. One of them was the founder of matches' factory Vulkāns in Kuldīga - Louis Hirschman.

It should be mentioned that Jews already in the 18th century founded money exchange in Kurzeme, its “center" was situated in Jelgava marketplace and it served almost the whole province nobility.

Great was Jews contribution in medicine. 93 from about 500 doctors registered in Kurzeme's province from 1825 - 1900, were Jews. Among them famous was Dr Martin Bernstein who emigrated to England. From 1892 he worked in British Medical Journal and was a member of British Medical Association. E.Aronson studied traditional medicine, he wrote a book Kleine Abhandlung über die Volksheilmittel der Letten. Dr. Hugo Ber was very famous - he was a doctor of Kurzeme's Governor. A lasting contribution to the Latvian science made Isidor Brennson - a doctor in Jelgava. He studied medicine history in the Baltics. In 1898 in Kurzeme the first Jewish doctor in Latvia Haja Gordon began her practice, she had studied in Zurich and Paris. Doctors were the most visible part of Kurzeme's Jews intellectual elite. Herman Meieroviz and his Latvian wife Anna were the famous Latvian statesman's - the first Foreign Minister of the independent Republic and Prime Minister's Sigfrid Meieroviz's (1887 - 1925) parents.

Excellent abilities were demonstrated also by Kurzeme's Jews religious communities" leaders. Jelgava rabbi Roiben Vundenbar became famous as the author of Biblisch - Talmudische Medizin (Riga, 1850, Leipzig, 1860) and the first historian of Latvian Jews. The other rabbi in Jelgava Solomon Pucher in 1861 and 1867 met Russian Emperor Alexander the Second and won his favor; that positively influenced the attitude towards the Jews in the Baltics. Rabbi in Bauska became world famous - in 1921 he was elected as the first high rabbi of Ashkenazim in the land of Israel (Palestine).

Kurzeme's Jews already starting from 1730 were forming their social organizations: Hevra Kadisch, Bikur Holim, Hevra Pole Zedek, Hevra Talmud Tora and others. In the 19th century Jewish school system was founded, there were 7 state schools, 22 private schools and 142 religious community schools. That's why the local Jewish adolescents became maybe the most educated Baltic Jews1. With that their national and political consciousness were risen. One part joined the social democrats, the other part - Zionists, the third joined Russia's liberal politicians' fight for reforms. It became especially visible during the days of the revolution of 1905 - 1907. Interesting that in the Russia State Duma there were always elected a Jewish representative from Kurzeme province: doctor of philosophy Nisan Katzenelson, from Liepaja in 1906, a tradesman Jacob Shapiro, from Ventspils in 1907, a lawyer Lasar Nisselovich from Bauska in 1908, a doctor Ecekiel Gurvich from Jēkabpils in 1912. In these elections there were only 12, 3, 2 and 4 Jews elected from the whole Russian Empire.

Thus Kurzeme's Jews became a significant factor in the great Russia. Because of their liberal and democratic mood they gained both support and hate from chauvinistic Russian forces. Especially during the First World War. Even though Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews were loyal to Russia the leaders of Russian army thought of them as potential German supporters. And the reason was the good German language knowledge and partial belonging to the culture of German culture. In spring 1915 when the German army was approaching the Kurzeme province the Supreme Commander Great Prince Nikolai Nikolajevich on the 17th (30th) of April gave an order to people of Jewish religion from Kurzeme and Zemgale to be deported to south and middle Russia. Thus more than 40 thousand people were deported. They were placed in Poltava, Yekaterinoslav, Vladimir and Voronezh provinces.

Historic ethnic union of Kurzeme's Jews was broken. Only Liepaja's and Aizpute's Jews remained since the German army arrived there very fast. The Jews met them as their savers. That was the "irony" of the 20th century history.

In 1918 when after the end of Russian Empire and German defeat after the World War Latvia was able to proclaim herself as an independent state, in the former Kurzeme province Jewish community were existing only in Liepaja. In 1919 there were 9671 Jews - 68% from the remaining number of Jews in Kurzeme and Zemgale. Nevertheless, since spring 1918 after the signing of Brest Peace Treaty between Germany and Soviet Russia there began gradual returning of deported Jews to Latvia. Thus the number of Jews grew.

In total until 1925 about 9 thousand Jews returned from east to Kurzeme and Zemgale. Their total number increased from 20 233 in 1920 to 22 548 in 1925. Their number in Kurzeme reached 14 883 and 7 665 in Zemgale. Great number of Kurzeme's Jews moved to Riga where there were better chances to start economic activities. A very good example was great success of "Kurzemes manufacture" in Riga managed by Naum Levitsky. In 1935 census showed existence of 12 012 Jews in Kurzeme (4.1% of inhabitants) and 7 353 Jews in Zemgale (2,46% of inhabitants). If at the beginning of the First World War in Kurzeme and Zemgale there lived about 1/3 of all Jews living in Latvia then in 1935 there were only 20,8% of all Jews in Latvia. But that did not mean decay of Jewish life. The essence of changes were Kurzeme's, Zemgale's, Latgale's and Riga's Jews joining in one Latvian Jewish community. It became possible thanks to all regions joining in the democratic Latvia. On the 17th of November in 1918, a day before the proclamation of the Republic, the Peoples Council recognized national minorities' rights to participate in state management and realize their ethnic - cultural rights. The Jews were recognized as national minority in Latvia with no restrictions of rights.

A new center of Kurzeme's Jews social life was formed in Liepaja, but for Zemgale's Jews - it became Jelgava. Public sentiments showed interests and points of views of these Jews. In 1918 many did not believe the idea of independent Latvia and leadership of Karlis Ulmanis, around 100 Jews volunteered in German emergency volunteer corps (Landeswehr), only 2 - joined Latvian National battalion commanded by colonel O.Kalpaks. At first many Jews liked the Soviet State lead by Peter Stuchka and Latvian Red Riflemen. But already in the second part of 1919 more then 200 Jews from Kurzeme and Zemgale were in the Latvian National Army, they participated in fights against the general fon der Golz and P.Bermont - Avalov German-Russian army. Liepaja's Jewish young people were especially active, they were fighting defending their city in October - November 1919. In 1920 about 400 Jews from Kurzeme and Zemgale were fighting in the Latvian army in Latgale front against Soviet Russia forces 2.

Majority of Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews finally joined independent Latvia in 1920 when there was elections for Latvia Saeima (Constituent Assembly) and local government. Majority of Jews in regions supported social democrats by electing in Kurzeme's Constituent Assembly Isaac Rabinovich from Liepaja. Although significant part of Kurzeme's Jews gave their votes for Zionists, a Jewish non-party group, by electing Aaron Ber Nurok from Jelgava. During the first Latvia Saeima elections in 1922 a rabbi from Jelgava Mordechai (Mark) Nurok appeared on the political stage, he was elected also in 2nd, 3rd and 4th Saeima. He was a leader for religious Zionistic party Mizrahi, he had gained great respect during the World War in Petrograd as defender of Latvian Jewish refugees and deported people. For some time he was vice president of Moscow Jewish community. M.Nurok believed: while Jews are in Latvia they must be loyal to this country, but their final goal is to re-gain their fatherland Israel 3. M.Nurok had met Latvian State President Janis Chakste several times. He had known him since 1899 in Jelgava when Chakste was a president of Latvian Society. In 1906 M.Nurok supported J.Chakste's election in Russian Duma. Significant that J.Chakste thought about setting M.Nurok as a candidate for Latvian President post in 1926.

Main interest of Kurzeme and Zemgale Jews in Latvia was in economy. Starting from the 20-ties of the 20tfl century when Latvian economy started to re-develop, they were initiators and activists for many activities in the country. In Jelgava brothers Daniel and Jacob Hoff developed a big linen factory, a spinning-factory, where there were about 1600 workers. The Hoffs renewed also Liepaja-Aizpute railway. Liepajas Banka gave a positive contribution to the development of Latvia finances. Jews N.Soloveichik and H.Raskin managed the board of the bank. In Kurzeme there were Liepaja's Hirsh Klein sawmills where they prepared timber for Latvian market as well as export. In Liepaja there were also huge Klein &Co timber warehouses. These companies were especially favored in England where there were set high requirements for production quality. Klein's Jewish timber sorters ensured it. They contributed a great part to Latvia's export income. An important role in export organization was played by companies of Israel Davidoff and H.Hirshberg. In Jelgava L.and Z.Hirshman's cleaning supplies factory was famous, in Kuldīga - previously mentioned Vulcan and others. In Bauska most significant part in town's economy life was taken by trading company of the Faitelsons. In town council David Hofshovich was elected several times, tradesman Ber Leibovich, public workers Benjamin Herzberg and Aizik Levenstein. As earlier, successful Jewish entrepreneurs were among interior trading branches, especially in Liepaja, Jelgava, Bauska, Kuldīga, Talsi, Tukums, Auce and other towns.

Jewish tailors had become so famous that clients came to them even from Lithuania. For example, men's tailor Vulf Dribin in Liepaja was very famous.

Great was Jewish contribution to the development of Latvian medicine. In Kurzeme and Zemgale there were active more then 100 doctors and even more of them worked as dentists. Jews owned about 25-30% of pharmacies. In Liepaja the best doctors were considered to be a therapist Morduch Weinreich, therapist Alfred Hoziosski, surgeon Maxim Zik, pediatrician Heiman Rabinovich, in Jelgava- therapist Moses Vildauer and Joseph Levitas, ears, throat and nose doctor Herman Hirshfeld, the sole of Bikur Holim hospital Vulf Freidenstein, in Ventspils everybody respected neurologist Laser Kopelovich and pediatrician Marianna Levenson, in Kuldīga -the head doctor of hospital Sigmund Hoziosski and psychiatrist Aaron Gurovich, in Roja - Isaac Thai, in Tukums - Persy Talberg, in Auce - Michael Zaliman, in Valdemarpils - Israel Fain, in Jaunjelgava - Isaac Herzberg, but Emmanuel Herzberg was a doctor in Kurzeme's division of Latvian Army.

In democratic Latvia Jewish parents had rights to send their children to schools with Hebrew study language - in 20-ties in the 20th century there had formed quite large net of minority schools. In Kurzeme and Zemgale there were 22 Jewish elementary schools in the study year 1928/29, 7 of them in Liepaja, 2 - in Tukums, 2 - in Bauska and one school in Aizpute, Ventspils, Kuldīga, Saldus, Talsi, Sabile, Jelgava, Skaistkalne, Jēkabpils, Jaunjelgava and Subate. Around 85-90% of local Jewish children were studying in them. Around 10% were studying in schools with German study language. Jewish secondary schools were in Jelgava - Principal Benjamin Bovshover, in Liepaja - Principals Jacob Klachko and Eric Shine, in Ventspils - Principal Shlom Tulbovich. Jewish teacher number was increasing constantly 4. Latvian language was taught in Jewish schools with high quality and children were raised as Latvian patriots. Already in 1939 in census it was acknowledged that among Jews who were older then 20, in Kurzeme Latvian was mastered by 90,5%, in Zemgale - 87,4% and in Latvia totally - 66,15%. In Jelgava it was mastered by 90,52%, in Liepaja - 88,40% of local Jews. Jews had contact with Latvians for a long time and knew their language. It was a precondition for their integration into Latvia.

K.UImanis coup on the 15th of May 1934 and the following tendency of development of Latvian Latvia did influence this integration rather negatively because there were restrictions put to autonomy of minorities 'cultures and minorities' education in native languages was limited as well. But in general Jewish social life did retain its vitality, influence of religious communities and Zionistic ideas increased. It motivated for returning to their historical fatherland - Israel. Influence of the left wing - now illegal social democrats increased and a part of young people turned to communistic illusions. Although majority of Jews in Kurzeme and Zemgale did not join left organizations. The intelligentsia mainly joined the Zionists.

It may be concluded that Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews did have the best times of their history in 1920 - 1940. Their future was stopped by 1939 agreement between two totalitarian countries - nazi Germany and bolshevist Soviet Union and the following occupation of Latvia and its annexation to USSR. At that time many Jews did not understand how negative influence it might have on their lives, they hoped that they would be saved from German Nazism, racism and cruelty. In 1940 - 1941 Soviet occupants deported many Jewish public workers. First of all Jewish political representatives were arrested and deported to the east of the USSR. Among them there were former deputies M.Nurok and I.Rabinovich. One third of the deported died. M.Nurok was released due to the USA pressure in 1942 and he was let to leave the USSR. I Rabinovich died on the 18th of June in a railway carriage on his way to the punishment place some days before the war between Germany and Soviet Union started. Their relatives who remained in Latvia had even worse destiny.

In 1941, June - July Kurzeme and Zemgale saw the first wave of Nazi holocaust bestialities in Latvia. It started in Grobiņa (a small town 10 km from Liepaja) when at night from 23 to 24 June Jews were killed by German Security Forces Special 1st division of shooters at the local cemetery. In Liepaja already on the 30th of June local German and Austrian Jews were caught and killed. On the 3rd of July killing of Liepaja's Jews began. Then followed elimination of Liepaja district Jews. "Cleaning" in Jelgava in July was performed by killers' squad gathered by German agent and political maniac M.Vagulan under supervision of German Security Forces and Police. In Bauska German soldiers as hostages killed the first five Jews. But on the 15th of July 1941 in Bauska 56 Jewish men were sterilized without anesthesia. But it did not spare them - 55 of them were killed as well as others in Bauska and Bauska district. On the 11th of July in Putnu forest German SD and local butchers were killing Auce's Jews, the next day highly beloved doctor M.Zaliman was killed as well. On the 15th of July a massacre of Jews began in Ventspils. Bloody division of V.Arajs participated in Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews elimination, they were notoriously famous as death bringers to Kuldīga, Krustpils and other places. Most terrible holocaust atrocities happened in Kurzeme on the 15th -17th December 1941 when 2749 town inhabitants were killed at Liepaja Shkedes dunes. This action was initiated by German occupant General Commissar in Latvia O.Dreksler thus hoping to win Hitler's special favor. With heaps of human corpses career pyramids were built for Nazi and local collaborationists.

By the end of summer 1941 more then 9/10 of Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews were killed. Those who were alive were put into concentration camps and ghettos, in 1943 - 1944 sent to Kaiserwald, to Auschwitz and Stutthof.

A Nazi newspaper printed in Riga Deutche Zeitung im Ostland on the 3rd of October 1941 in their article The Hoff Brothers - example for everybody said that Jews came to Latvia from Russia as greedy, mean strangers. The Nazi propaganda was happy that with the elimination of Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews this "god country" finally had shook off "the Jewish yoke" which they had had since the 18th century. In reality there was eliminated that part of Jews who originally had come from Germany, that had given great contribution to the development of Kurzeme and Zemgale and that had found common language with Latvians and could give even more to the benefit of Latvia.

Nazi wished to erase from the memory of people Jews historical contribution, their good deeds, the memory of their families. They partially succeeded and it was even promoted by Soviet anti-Semitism.

If we respect the truth and wish to be honest, if we condemn the Nazi as well as Bolshevistic totalitarism, then the consequences in the historical memory must be erased as well. The historical memory about Jews in Latvia, in Kurzeme and Zemgale must be renewed not only in general. The memory of every one killed in holocaust must be eternalized. That will be the renewal of the truth and settling accounts with the Nazi intention to cross out the Jews from the positive history of Europe. Thus we will testify our strong will to finally eliminate the remainings of totalitarism from the consciousness of people. Thousands of acknowledged names of the victims are the testimony of today.

Some statistical data on Kurzeme's and Zemgale’s Jews according the 1935 census

1. Table: Jews in the structure of 15 biggest towns in Kurzeme and Zemgale in 1935

Number of Jews
Jews in % of total of inhabitants

2. Table: Structure of Kurzeme's and Zemgale's Jews age in 1935

Until 19 (%)
60 and older
Persons whose age is not defined
All inhabitants of Latvia

3. In 1935 there were Jews active
in trade:             in Kurzeme - 26,6%, in Zemgale - 26,5%
in industry:      in Kurzeme - 6,1%, in Zemgale - 3,8%

1 Remarkable European scientists have originated from Kurzeme's Jews of those times; professor of the Paster Institute and head of the department in Paris Mozus Shoen (1884 - 1938), member of the USSR Academy of Science a physiologist from Liepaja Lina Shtern (1878 - 1968) and others.
2 In 1928 "Jewsish Latvian Liberation Association" was founded. In 1931 in its Liepaja division there were 210 members. In the division's board there was M.Civjan (chairman), M.Libson (deputy chairman), M.Krok, A.Halperin, H.judelovich, I.Zamuelson, l.lzraelson and L.Lipert. In revision commission - B.Levin, M.Shiling and I.Rozenblum.
3 In 1949 M.Nurok was elected in Israel Kneset and in 1952 he became a Communication Minister of this country.
4 In 1940 in schools in Latvia there were around 500 Jewish teachers.